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Northern Ireland: Crisis? what crisis?

Peter Geoghegan
September 13, 2018

Northern Ireland’s assembly collapsed in a row over a botched renewable heating scheme in January 2017. More than 600 days later, the province still has no functioning government. Peter Geoghegan reports.

A no entry sign in front of Northern Ireland's parliament building
Image: picture-alliance/PA Wire/L. McBurney

Late last month, hundreds of protesters attended rallies across Northern Ireland. Many held up homemade signs carrying the same message: "We Deserve Better." The day marked an unwanted record for Northern Ireland — no other region, province or country has gone longer without a government. The previous record was held by Belgium, which managed 589 days.

Under the terms of the peace agreement that effectively ended the Northern Irish conflict in 1998, power at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly, is shared between nationalists and unionists. But a series of talks between former coalition partners, the Irish Republicans Sinn Fein and the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), failed to find a breakthrough.

Read morePast haunts Northern Ireland 20 years after the 'troubles'

Few believe that a functioning administration will be in place by the time that Brexit is due, in March 2019. "Nothing is going to happen this side of Brexit," said Claire Hanna, a member of the Stormont assembly for the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. "The Northern Irish public is fed up. Everybody is angry."

three people holding up a sign reading 589 days
It's certainly a record, but not one to be proud ofImage: picture-alliance/PA Wire/D. Young

Generally political parties that bring down governments are punished by voters. But in Northern Ireland — where politics is still overwhelmingly divided between those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who want to join the Republic of Ireland — the political price for staying out of Stormont remains cheap, at least for now.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are polling at record numbers and made major gains in last summer's UK general election. "Blame [for there being no government] is split along party lines. DUP voters blame Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein voters blame the DUP," Hanna told DW. "Everyone is inoculated by blame."

No direct rule from Westminister

Previously when the Northern Ireland assembly has collapsed direct rule from Westminster has been introduced, but that is seen as politically unfeasible as the minority Conservative government in London relies on DUP votes to function. Instead Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley has suggested the civil service will be given a greater role in the day-to-day running of the country.

"We expected this about a year ago but finally seems to be what's going to happen," a senior Northern Irish civil servant told DW, on condition of anonymity. "The DUP in power [in London] means they can't bring in direct rule."

Bradley has been under fire herself, after telling a journalist that before taking the post earlier this year she knew little about Northern Ireland and was "slightly scared" of the place. 

Sinn Fein and the DUP have blamed one another for the stalemate. In August, the Democratic Unionist Party unveiled a banner at Stormont saying Sinn Fein was responsible for the lack of devolution. DUP party leader Arlene Foster said Sinn Fein "need to end their boycott and allow government to happen here in Northern Ireland."

campaigners holding a banner in front of Stormont
Sinn Fein and the DUP have been playing the blame gameImage: picture-alliance/PA Wire/L. McBurney

In response senior Sinn Fein figure Conor Murphy said his party had an agreement with the DUP in February but that the DUP walked away from it. "It would suit them better to carry a banner at a Pride parade supporting the rights of those people than to be waving a banner out the front of Stormont," Murphy said.

Steve Aiken, an assembly member for the smaller Ulster Unionist party, says both Sinn Fein and the DUP need to take responsibility for the absence of devolution. Former First Minister Foster has been embroiled in a long-running scandal over a renewable heating scheme that spiraled out of control due to poor budget planning and many believe she could be pushed aside as party leader in the coming months.

"Foster has been a disaster for unionism and more than that a disaster for all of Northern Ireland," said Aiken.

The Ulster Unionist party would like to see a change to the assembly's power-sharing structures, which currently mean both major nationalist and unionist parties must govern together. "We should be able to create a coalition of the winning if either Sinn Fein or the DUP don't want to go into government. That should not mean that there is no government," Aiken told DW.

Where will Brexit leave Northern Ireland?

Brexit further complicates the prospect of re-establishing devolved government. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, but the DUP strongly backs leaving. Sinn Fein has called for a border poll on Irish unity in the wake of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the status of the Irish border has become the biggest sticking point between UK and EU negotiators. Twenty years ago, the British and Irish governments signed the Good Friday Agreement but while London insists Brexit will not harm Northern Ireland, Dublin has become increasingly anxious about the possibility of any change to the current open border.

An anti-Brexit sign alongside a road in Northern Ireland
The uncertainty over Brexit has added to the government crisisImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Faith

For some, the best means of progressing politics in Northern Ireland could come outside the formal structures of government. "Despite the fact that the Assembly is suspended there are a lot of creative things happening in Northern Ireland," said Pete Shirlow, director of the School of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

Shirlow is part of a new project looking to develop space for dialogue in Northern Irish civic society away from often partisan political debates through the establishment of "mini-publics" of voters in different communities. "We are trying to illustrate that there are other voices that are unheard because they don't have the same capacity to assert themselves," Shirlow told DW. With no government in Belfast, those voices might finally have a chance to be heard.

Brexit: Uncertainty at the Irish border